Technology Focus How will Virtual Reality change the railway for staff and passengers
Latest update: March 2019
Virtual Reality is in the late stages of commercial implementation: most advancements in the field are iterations on existing commercial products. Early adopters of VR in the rail sector have used the technology for evacuation training and PTI research. Recently, a VR model of Liverpool Lime Street Station was used to facilitate construction and renovation planning. RSSB are currently developing a VR tool for understanding crowd behaviour at the PTI.
What is Virtual Reality?
Virtual Reality (VR) is an immersive, computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional environment, in which the user caninteract in a seemingly realistic or physical way via specialised electronic equipment to experience a virtual world primarily through sight and sound. This can include a head mounted device housing a screen inside which can be used in conjunction with a controller, e.g. gloves fitted with tracking or haptic/touch feedback sensors. This allows simulations which would be either impossible to experience in the real world or too dangerous/expensive to conduct in real life settings, such as anti-terrorist intervention scenarios, aircraft piloting, & surgery.
What industries already use VR?
VR has been widely adopted by the gaming and entertainment industry, as it permits a highly immersive experience of novel and exciting environments.
Other Industries are also adopting VR for training purposes, allowing high-risk experiences in complete safety:
- In military training, soldiers can train in a virtual world without risk of real harm
- In the medical industry, VR is used to train surgeons using simulated operations where they can learn from mistakes without any consequences; reducing injury, increasing operational efficiency, and reducing maintenance time & costs
- The space industry is also currently using this technology as they recognize the ‘learning by doing’ approach increases learning efficiency. Thus, NASA is using a CAVE system to accommodate a simulator training scheme for flight controllersto learn and experience emergency procedures from multiple perspectives e.g. the control room or as an astronaut on the ISS
- The aerospace industry uses VR flight simulators to train pilots without the cost and risk of flying a physical plane.
How will VR impact the rail industry?
VR can offer rail new training methods that allow trainees to experience situations that would be impossible or unsafe to recreate in real life. This allows risk free & low cost maintenance as the training can be provided without the potential costs, risks and logistical factors of using real infrastructure & equipment. This could be adopted by implementing train driver training orconstruction and maintenance training for engineers. This training could allow the rail industry’s work force to operate more efficiently under high-stress hazardous situations as there could potentially be increases in self-efficacy, decisive action-taking and hazard perception.
What should the rail industry do?
The rail industry could explore the implications of incorporating VR into its training schemes as it offers an innovative style of learning, as well as potential maintenance and cost reduction savings. Furthermore, the rail industry should consider evaluating where existing applications of VR platforms in other industries are most applicable. For example, more elaborate systems such as CAVE may have the comparative advantage of allowing a more immersive interaction with the trainees. Whereas head-mounted displays used with tailored VR accessories provide more focused training environments. The industry should consider devising frameworks that quantify how to create an effective VR training environment, measuring how successful it is in delivering training.
What R&D is underway & what uncertainties remain?
Research is currently looking into full VR immersion experiences integrating the 5 senses (for example. the Teslasuit will provide a full-body haptic feedback, motion capture, temperature-controlled suit) and creating more advanced hardware/software that allows better interaction and tracking.
Various industry players in rail are focussing their efforts on identifying the most effective uses of VR to select areas where it could improve on the current methods of training or operations. Arriva Trains Wales is currently developing a VR training tool with RSSB to improve safety at the platform train interface, aiding training and operations. And RSSB’s Human Factors department are currently using VR to test interactive lighting systems for train boarding.
VR has been used to map & model stations for renovation and development. It was used in conjunction with redevelopments of the Liverpool Lime Street Station, reducing the amount of time needed on track and the potential to impact on train services; allowing planners to alleviate potential overlaps between different engineering teams, & identifying potential risks and hazards that could have potentially affected the railway’s reopening.
VR is currently limited by technological constraints. Roughly 25% to 45% of users report some form of cybersickness due to the disconnect between what they see in VR and what they’re experiencing physically. Newer technologies may allow faster refresh rates of the displays as well as faster processors, which reduce cybersickness. Improved tracking technology can allow an increase in response rate to movement and the integration of more of the 5 senses – namely touch will also add to the immersive feeling and reduce cybersickness.
Companies that wish to implement VR training may be required to make a large upfront investment as the cost of VR equipment and creation of a virtual environment specific to the training task is currently high.
VR headsets currently on the market, such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive require a constant connection to a computer which may limit some of their possible uses. Furthermore, uncertainties remain on where VR simulation training is most applicable as there has not been enough research and assessment to fully understand in which areas VR training is more effective than traditional training methods.
Banner image author: Maurizio Pesce from Milan, Italia (Razer OSVR Open-Source Virtual Reality for Gaming) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.